June 21, 2013
Tony Hawk and Rodney Mullen are skateboarding giants. Both turned pro in their early teens more than 30 years ago, and spent the 1980s and 1990s pioneering modern skating’s two most prevalent styles: Hawk, “the Birdman,” took to the skies to invent many of the sport’s iconic gravity-defying aerials, including the 900; Mullen, “the Godfather of Street Skating,” hit the pavement to make up flips, grinds and balancing maneuvers that don’t seem humanly possible even after you’ve watched them.
Combined, the two have come up with close to 100 tricks.
The pair will be at the National Museum of American History this weekend for Innoskate, a public festival that celebrates skateboarding’s culture of innovation, from tricks to skateboard design to skate shoes and fashion. After Hawk donates his very first skateboard to the museum’s collection on Saturday, he will sit down with Mullen for a panel discussion specifically about trick innovation, during which the two legends will reflect on the challenges and rewards of imagining the big moves that launched their sport from a small, alternative subculture to a mainstream sensation.
In anticipation of this discussion, we asked Hawk and Mullen separately what it takes to invent a killer skateboard trick. Here are the four golden rules we took away from their responses:
1. Respect the Past
“When I came up with most of my tricks, it wasn’t like I was trying to figure out the next move that was impossibly difficult and had never been tried on any level.,” Hawk says. “A lot of the things I’ve created, especially throughout the ’80s, combined existing tricks.”
He invented his first trick, the backside varial, at about age 12. The trick wasn’t earth-shattering, but it was new, and gave Hawk an original move to begin to establish his credibility at such a young age.
“For me, skating wasn’t always about the chase of being the inventor,” he says. “I just wanted to keep improving my skills, and if I could take inspiration from others to do that, I was happy to.”
Mullen had a similar experience in creating one of his most significant early-career tricks, the casper. The move was a slight alteration of what was already known as the 50-50 casper, in which the skater flips the board upside down and balances it with only the tail touching the ground.
“In many ways, that move opened up so many variations,” he says. “But at the time, it was a very, very simple variation itself of what already existed—so much so that it just dropped the 50-50 and used the same name.
“Everything is a variation of a variation, to some degree” he adds. “You can’t expect to come up with something and say, ‘that’s entirely new.’ ”
2. Stay Simple
Great tricks don’t need to be complicated, Hawk and Mullen agree. Instead, the best tricks combine technical proficiency with an element of grace—a certain harmony of imagination and function.
Hawk says that many of his tricks have been “born out of necessity,” the accidental result of trying to accomplish one move and realizing there was a different way to approach things. He came up with the backside varial, for instance, because he was bad at frontside rotations.
“Sometimes I would be trying to learn something that had already been created and my board would keep getting away from me or I felt like I was turning too far, and I’d think, oh, maybe I could do something new here,” he says.
Mullen jokes that “the greatest skaters are the laziest skaters.” For a lot of the tricks he has invented, he says, “my line of reasoning has been it’s going to be 10 percent harder, 20 percent harder, 30 percent harder to do at first, so it costs more upfront to get there, but in the end, if I can count on it more, then it will be easier. That is what has driven a lot of my thinking in terms of what got me to do things a little differently.”
3. Keep an Open Mind
“Usually skaters are stubborn, because they don’t like to be defeated, but that’s something you really have to let go of sometimes,” Mullen says. “If you approach a hard new trick with a mindset of ‘I’m going to overcome this, just turn on the camera,’ you’re probably not going to hit the trick because it’s going to be an uphill battle. Put away the camera and say, ‘I’m just going to tinker with this. I’m a little bit at sea, and I’m going to go with the tides and see where they take me.’ ”
And letting go doesn’t mean settling for anything less. “Open your mind to doing something even harder, too,” he says. “If your environment spins you in a certain direction or gives you a certain torque that works against you in one way, it may work for you in another. Even if a trick is 20 percent harder, if it flows better with the environment you’re skating in, it might actually be easier to do. So just go with it. Play with it. Maybe you won’t get what were dreaming of, but you might be able to get something better.”
Hawk likes to go back to the basics whenever he hits a rough patch.
“I would do tricks that felt good but weren’t necessarily as hard, and tinker with them,” he says. “With grinds, for example, I would think, all right, what’s the limit of these types of grinds? What can we do with them, instead of trying to figure out the next super crazy flip spin. I created a lot tricks by going back to the drawing board, because people don’t always think in those terms.”
4. Be Authentic
“I can do the exact same trick somebody else does and it will look completely different, because I have my own my own flair,” Hawk says. “Skating is about sharing ideas, but at the same time making it your own. It is equally creative as it is athletic, as much an art form as it is a sport.”
“Authenticity is everything in the community,” Mullen agrees, and adds that skateboarding culture is unique in its lack of metrics to define what is good skating and bad skating, proper and improper form; rather than conforming to standards, individuals contribute to the community by developing their own style.
“Be yourself,” he says. “If you have this kind of spastic way of doing something, even if it looks goofy, the fact is that it can look cool, because it’s you. Go with that. Be different. Don’t just try be different and concoct it, because you’re going to be sniffed out.”
“Do what you love, even if it’s not established,” says Hawk. “And keep doing it, because you might be the pioneer of a whole movement.”
June 6, 2013
American swimming champion-turned-movie star Esther Williams died today. She was 91, and passed away this morning in her sleep, according to her family and publicist.
Williams grew up outside of Los Angeles, where she competed for a city swim team and won numerous titles and set national records as a teenager, including a 100-meter freestyle victory at the Women’s Outdoor National Championship in 1939. The next year, she was selected for the Olympic team, but the Games were cancelled when World War II broke out.
Williams left competition in 1940 to make a living, selling clothes in a department store for a few months until she was invited by showman Billy Rose to work a bathing beauty job in his Aquacade show at the World’s Fair. While performing, she was spotted by MGM scouts and given a contract with the film studio in 1941. She became a film sensation over the next decade by starring in the studio’s hugely popular “aqua-musicals,” including Bathing Beauty, Neptune’s Daughter and Million Dollar Mermaid.
She swam more than 1,250 miles in 25 aqua-musicals throughout her film career.
In 2008, Williams donated to the National Museum of American History two giant scrapbooks that MGM kept of her time with the studio, each multiple feet-tall and made of wood. The books are filled with both professional and personal mementos. Williams was recognized throughout her career for her beauty and athleticism, so she appeared in numerous pin up posters and advertisements, as well as magazine and newspaper articles.
The scrapbooks are currently held by Williams’ publicist, but now should be on their way to the museum soon, says entertainment curator Dwight Blocker Bowers. They will likely go on display in a 2016 exhibition on American culture (currently the museum’s popular culture hall is closed for renovations).
Bowers thinks Williams will be remembered not only for putting swimming on the map in film, but also for the genuine star power she brought to the screen as a singer and actress. “You do not remember her just for the swimming sequences,” he says. “She matched her swimming ability with her ability to have a strong presence on the screen. She was a movie star. She was vibrant on screen.”
For more of Bowers’ thoughts on Williams, read the museum’s blog post on her here.
April 9, 2013
You may think we’re sick of baseball here at Smithsonian Mag, seeing as we’ve already written about its sheet music and poetry just 10 days into its season, but no way! We can’t stop digging up cool artifacts relating to America’s favorite past time.
Today is the 100-year anniversary of the opening of Ebbets Field, Brooklyn’s now-demolished major league baseball park, and in celebration we’ve compiled a few images of items related to the park that are currently in Smithsonian’s collections. Above is a pair of seats from the park’s stands, which were torn down along with the rest of the stadium in 1960 three years after Brooklyn’s home team, the Dodgers, relocated to Los Angeles, and below is a Dodgers jersey and a postage stamp commemorating the park’s iconic facade (after which the exterior of Queens’ Citi Field is modeled).
Ebbets Field made history on April 15, 1947, when Jackie Robinson debuted as Major League Baseball’s first African American player the modern era, covering first base for the Dodgers. Over the following decade, the franchise’s enormous success (including a 1955 World Series victory) ultimately was its undoing, because the stadium’s small size and lack of parking could not accommodate the team’s growing number of fans. The Dodgers’ departure and the field’s demolition were seen by many New Yorkers as a departure from baseball’s old-time values to an increasingly commercial focus.
“The move showed even a team with an entrenched fanbase and a lot of love could leave, and it changed baseball’s relationship between its fans and its franchises,” says Eric Jentsch, curator at the American History Museum. “Ebbets field has a special place in the hearts of America, because it fought for New York City’s love. Its demolition signified a more modern take on the sporting world, in spite of the affection the park won.”
The red sandstone façade of the Smithsonian Castle makes it one of the most striking buildings in Washington, DC. The stone for the building was cut less than 30 miles away at the Seneca Quarry along the Potomac River in Maryland and shipped to the city in the 1850s when the building was first under construction. But the quarry’s story is a complicated one, involving death, floods, bankruptcy and presidential embarrassment. DC author and historian Garrett Peck recently set about telling its tales in his new book, The Smithsonian Castle and the Seneca Quarry, out now via The History Press. We chatted with Peck via e-mail about the Castle’s construction, the importance of preserving the stone’s history and the quarry’s “boom-bust ride” of fortune and ruin.
What makes Seneca redstone so special?
Seneca redstone is unique for its color and durability. It is a rusty red color, caused by iron oxide that leached into the sandstone (yes, it literally rusted the stone). The stone was easy to carve from the cliffs near Seneca Creek, Maryland, but it hardened over the course of a year, making it a durable building material. Thus you see Seneca redstone in hundreds of 19th-century buildings around Washington, especially around the basement levels. The stone was considered waterproof.
Why was Seneca redstone chosen for the Castle?
Fifteen quarries from across the Mid-Atlantic bid on the Smithsonian Castle project in 1846, and the Castle could have ended up any number of different colors: granite, marble, white or yellow sandstone—or redstone. The Seneca quarry owner, John P.C. Peter, underbid the competition by such a staggering amount that it drew the attention of the Castle’s Building Committee. It was almost too good to be true, so they dispatched architect James Renwick and geologist David Dale Owen to investigate. They returned with good news: there was more than enough stone to build the Castle. Renwick wrote the Building Committee: “The stone is of excellent quality, of even color, being of a warm gray, a lilac tint resembling that known as ashes of rose, and can, from all indications, be found in sufficient quantities to supply all the face work for the Institution.”
What was the Seneca Quarry like at the height of its production?
The Seneca quarry must have been a bustling and noisy place to work, what with the constant hammering away at the cliffside, the din of workers carving and polishing the stone, and the braying of mules who pulled the C&O Canal boats to Washington. We don’t know how much redstone was removed, but it was extensive: there were about a dozen quarries stretching along the one-mile stretch of the Potomac River west of Seneca Creek. The workforce included many immigrants from England, Ireland and Wales, as well as African Americans. Slaves most likely worked at the quarry before the Civil War—and freedmen certainly worked there until the quarry closed in 1901.
Your book says the quarry’s history was a “boom-bust ride.” What was some of the drama surrounding the quarry and the Castle’s construction?
The Seneca quarry had four different owners: the Peter family, who owned it from 1781 to 1866, then sold it after their fortunes declined because of the Civil War. Three different companies then owned the quarry until it closed—two of them going bankrupt. The Seneca Sandstone Company (1866-1876) was horribly managed financially. It was involved in a national scandal that embarrassed the Ulysses S. Grant presidency and helped bring down the Freedman’s Bank. The quarry’s last owner shut down operations in 1901 once it became clear that redstone was no longer in fashion. It had had a good five decade run while Victorian architecture reigned.
What is the Seneca quarry like today?
The Seneca quarry sits right along the C&O Canal about 20 miles upriver from Washington, DC in Montgomery County, Maryland. But it’s so overgrown with trees and brush that most people have no idea that it exists—even though hundreds of people bike or walk right past it everyday along the canal towpath. Luckily the land is entirely protected in parkland, so it can never be developed. I have a dream that we can create a visitor park in the quarry so people can explore its history year-round.
We so rarely ever make the connection between our building materials and the places where we live and work. Yet every brick, sheetrock, splotch of paint and wooden doorway came from somewhere, didn’t it? The Seneca quarry is one of those forgotten places—but fortunately it isn’t lost to us.
What is your personal connection to the story of Seneca Quarry?
I discovered the Seneca quarry while researching my previous book, The Potomac River: A History and Guide. It was the one major historical site that I found along the Potomac that no one knows about—there isn’t so much as a sign to indicate that it’s there. It is such a fascinating site, like discovering something lost from ancient Rome (even though it only closed in 1901). There has never been a book about the quarry’s history written before, and I also soon discovered that there were no quarry records. It was a story that I had to piece together by searching through archives. Happily I found a treasure trove of historic photos showing the Seneca quarry in action—many populated with the African American workers who worked there.
March 29, 2013
Smithsonian Channel is about to get some new hardware to add to its fast-growing awards collection. On Wednesday, March 27, the University of Georgia’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication announced this year’s George Foster Peabody Award recipients, and the six-year-old Channel got the call.
The Peabody Award is the oldest and among the most prestigious annual awards in electronic media, started in 1941 to recognize exceptional work made for radio, the web and television. Smithsonian Channel won a documentary award for MLK: The Assassination Tapes, its 2012 film by producer Tom Jennings that tells the story of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination in 1968 entirely from historical news reports and rare footage—no narrator or interviews.
“The technique really brings out the raw drama of the narrative,” says the Smithsonian Channel’s Executive Vice President of Programming and Production David Royle, an executive producer on the show. “When you watch the film, it’s as if you’re sitting at home watching it on television for the first time. It has a real visceral immediacy to it.”
Jennings gathered most of his footage from a fortuitous source. When Memphis’s mostly black sanitation workers went on strike in February 11, 1968, several faculty members at the University of Memphis began collecting every piece of media they could find relating to the strike, convinced of its historical importance. King showed up in the city to lend his support, and was shot on his motel balcony a day after delivering his famous “I’ve been to the Mountaintop” address at the city’s Mason Temple. Memphis’s faculty saved all the coverage of his death and its aftermath in their Special Collections Division, so they wound up with a rare, big-picture account of the murder and its elaborate social context.
“It was startling to me just how volatile America was in 1968,” says Royle. “In the film, you see the long-simmering anger on both sides of the racial divide absolutely boiling over. It is intense. It’s not that there aren’t racial issues confronting America today, but what you see is just so out of control, and so angry. It brings it home that I think a lot of us have forgotten about, even people who lived through that; it’s hard to remember just what a knife edge America was balanced on in those years.”
Royle believes that witnessing Americans tackling these issues in King’s time provides a lesson of hope and perseverance for modern viewers. “It’s important for a younger generation that we see people confront what was going on, and to appreciate the courage of the past,” he says. “I think it gives people who are confronting today’s version of injustice courage to also stand up for what they believe in. Even though this story is infused with tragedy, it is ultimately a film of triumph. It’s a film of justice overcoming injustice.”
This year’s 38 other Peabody winners include a This American Life story about Guatemalan immigrant whose supposed father led the massacre of his village, a blog about the daily and historic workings of the Supreme Court and Lena Dunham’s mega-popular HBO comedy-drama “Girls.” The awards will be presented at a ceremony in May, but there’s no need to wait around to see MLK: The Assassination Tapes in action—watch the whole film above!